Terry Brooks & the Lighter Side

Typically I write about horror, weird fiction, etc. Not today. Currently I’m excited by the upcoming series The Shannara Chronicles. Have you seen the trailer? No? Then check it out:

I will watch and likely enjoy the heck out of some portion of this series. I’m just not as invested in it as I am in certain other Notoriously Mangled Fantastic Intellectual Properties, and this trailer looks pretty. Once upon a time I read and enjoyed the heck out of Terry Brooks‘ fiction, although I stopped at a certain point, so all of this science-fantasy-Space-Needle-in-Shannara business is new to me, but whatever. I like science fantasy, the post-apocalypse, etc., so it’s off to the races.

Terry Book comes in for an awful lot of criticism in certain F/SF circles; if you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at a recent MetaFilter discussion for a summary, including links to and snippets of both vitriol and paeans. For my part, I’ll share these three things that mean I’ll be watching the series.

Shannara art from the brothers hildebrandt

Shannara, as envisioned by the Brothers Hildebrandt

Thing the first. The currently predominant flavor in fantasy fiction—not talking Vampires in the Lemon Grove or “The Library of Babel,” but the stuff you find in the F/SF section in the bookstore—is dark. “Grimdark” in particular, a reaction against the pleasant, if occasionally somewhat vague, unrealities that sprang up in the wake of Tolkien. I’ve read plenty of the dark stuff, because I enjoy it and the psychological realism that often comes with it, but it has its own problems.

As one writer friend said during the latest Game of Thrones debacle, maybe—just maybe—if you regularly consume stories rich with graphic violence and brutality, you shouldn’t complain so much when graphically violent and brutal things happen. Like rape. And, lo, there were hordes of people that week on the internet running around hollering about how you don’t have to have rape in your fantasy universe if you don’t want to and isn’t George R. R. Martin horrible because his work is just chock full of rape and misogyny and how dare HBO let Sansa be raped in the show… and at a certain point I had to laugh. Not because the genuine upset people felt was funny, not because the situation in the story is funny, but because my friend was right. There are other things out there to read, watch, listen to, etc., that aren’t about horrible things like rape, torture, genocide, and hatred. And, hey, when something horrible shows up in the thing you like? You have the power to ignore the thing or stop giving your time to the work.

We are at a cultural moment where the status (legal and otherwise) of women is waxing and waning in all sorts of ways, some of which many people did not really expect, and so we look for opportunities to talk about it, because it should be talked about. Likewise questions of race and ethnicity, which I am very glad are part of the ongoing conversation about what F/SF should be. We don’t live in a vacuum, and neither do our stories, but damn, people—if you don’t want to be brutalized while trying to enjoy escapism, maybe avoid the Fantasy Novels Featuring Guaranteed Minimum Quantities of Maiming, Murder, Rape, Abuse, Torture, Nihilism, Genocide, Colonialism, and Shit That’s Guaranteed to Brutalize You. As Terry Books said in an interview:

“Don’t mention Game of Thrones to me. We were saying, “We don’t want to go that route.” That’s not what the Shannara books are. They’re a family-oriented fantasy and always have been.”

I don’t consider what I write to be family-oriented, nor do I explicitly go in search of that most of the time, but sometimes I want pleasurable, relaxing fantasy.

Thing the second. The Shannara books are often held up as examples of whatever the given critic is looking to criticize, whether it’s Extruded Fantasy Product, Tolkien clones, bad writing, whatever. Note, however, that there are writers who see merit in Brooks’ work. (Aside: if you haven’t read Brooks’ memoir Sometimes the Magic Works, and if you care in the slightest about the formation of the F/SF market as it exists today, you should.)

Everyone always has a reason to hate X book or Y kind of writing, but I recently picked up and thumbed through the little horde of F/SF I’ve amassed over approximately a quarter-century reading it, and I was pleased by the quality of Brooks’ prose. Especially in comparison to the rest of the field of books read by F/SF readers. There are so many, many clunkers in the field of movie tie-in books, licensed IP books, and original F/SF novels, some of them written by authors you love or have loved, and certainly much of the sea of unedited self-published fiction that floats around the internet is worse by far.

Am I going to go out and read up on the Shannara I missed? Probably not. I’m reading Giallo Fantastique, Aickman’s Heirs, Frank O’Hara poems, and a bunch of non-fiction and stuff for research right now. If I read any straight-up F/SF this summer, it’s likely to be some of the Joe Abercrombie I haven’t read, or perhaps Malazan, which is now complete and which I’ve been meaning to read for years. But would I read more by Brooks? Sure. I enjoyed Shannara and the Landover books back in the day, and he is a competent, large-hearted writer who deserves respect. He didn’t have an MFA when he started writing, nor was there a plethora of contemporary models to choose from when he was writing. He wrote a story he loved, as well as he possibly could, and I’m grateful for it.

Thing the third. A long time ago, Terry Brooks was the first author I ever met. I was a shy and lonely kid, like so many others, but surprisingly I wasn’t tongue-tied in the moment. I remember that he was sitting by himself at a table in a Waldenbooks. He was a successful author at that point, but he was just sitting there, reading, with most people just walking past.

It was a cramped location, and his table was… small, but he wasn’t complaining, nor did he appear discommoded. He smiled, thanked me for reading, asked me who else I liked to read, did I like to write, and all of those sorts of things. I didn’t have money to buy anything new from him at the time, but I did have a small stack of his paperbacks. He signed each one, legibly, and I have them to this day. In an age where many authors (and readers, unfortunately) default to snarky, dismissive, attention-seeking, or simply asinine behavior online and in person, Terry Brooks stands clear in my memory for his graciousness. I think the world would be a better place if more people had the wherewithal to behave in such a fashion.

And all of those are some of the reasons why, thirty years after reading The Sword of Shannara, probably twenty-five years after last reading anything Shannara, I’m looking forward to The Shannara Chronicles.

Happy weekend, be good to each other, and be magic.

signature on title page of book

Treasure.

The Hugos: Shenanigans & Unpopular Opinions

men dueling

Hugo Awards Duel, 1893

The picture above is a c. 1900 photograph of two men having a sword fight. Given photographic technology of the time, it was almost certainly staged, much as the posturing braggadocio swirling around the 2015 Hugo Awards is staged. Why staged? This is a well-rehearsed fight about issues of literary taste, generational shift, and identity (particularly race and gender) that have been publicly in play in F/SF fiction for some years, and have gotten increasing airtime as the world has diversified and everything has become less monolithic.

Now, what’s this about Hugo? For those who don’t know F/SF, the Hugo is one of the two biggest awards in the field. This year’s awards process has become a topic of particular debate because various people used a voting bloc strategy to get a slate (a blend of two slates, actually, proposed by folks going variously by the names “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies”—more here) of titles onto the ballot for this year’s award. The fight’s been nasty, attracting national and international media attention (e.g. NPR, The Atlantic, etc.). Otherwise deserving works of 2014 that attracted the attention of readers, reviewers, and taste-makers in and out of the genre community do not appear, including some yours truly personally loved.

Why do you care? I used to identify to some extent as a “fantasy author.” My fiction has, for the most part, settled into a flavor that seems to fit best, if not exclusively, in horror or literary mags. I publish in many places and tend to say “I write fiction” when people ask, but I still care about F/SF. I’ve never really been much into fandom or conventions, though I’ve enjoyed going to a few in recent years, although my interest is more academic and/or professional than fannish. By day I’m a librarian, and ironically I may actually care more deeply wearing that hat than I do wearing my writer hat: librarians regularly use awards as a gauge of what to purchase for their collections, especially when budgets are thin. Which library buys how many of what is complicated, but the last ALA survey puts the number of U.S. school, public, and armed forces libraries at 107,802. I know many authors who would be delighted by a bump to their sales in the amount of 0.1% of that number. Will all of those libraries buy a copy of each Best Novel winner? No, and for many reasons, but I’ve seen a number of comments about how awards can lead to “a few sales to libraries.” I repeat: 107,802.

And so you think all of this is…? The best thing I’ve heard said about this whole fiasco, by Farah Mendlesohn a week back on social media, is that it’s dishonorable. I agree wholeheartedly. This year’s behavior around the awards has been nasty, but the picture above is relevant here because people have behaved dishonorably. I think the word accurately captures the distress felt by people who feel awards ought to have legitimacy and a basis in the quality of the works under consideration. Honor is a quaint and curious concept in 2015, but I think it fits nicely in here. This shit would have resulted in duels and deaths a couple hundred years ago.

But politics are a dirty business! So indeed. The best, most thoughtful comments I’ve read along those lines come from Nick Mamatas. I have not (God help me) followed every corner of this debate, but I do think his points about “next steps” are good. Likewise, I strongly agree that the sword cuts both ways. You can’t engage in politics and then squeal when someone out-politics you. And make no mistake: “eligibility posts” are a form of campaigning, and saying anything less is hypocritical sophistry (even if one thinks, as I do, that they help to shed light on underrepresented people who and works that otherwise get lost in the scrum). Charlie Jane Anders argued after the award nominations were announced that the Hugos have always been political, and now they’re only political, and I very sincerely hope she’s wrong… but put three people in a room and you have politics.

Is this the end of the Hugos? I can’t count the number of people I’ve read dolefully and/or gleefully saying that this is The End for the Hugos, or that it’s The End under X or Y condition. This is nonsense. If you want it, fight for it. The Puppies figured out a way to mobilize, and so can anyone else, particularly given how few people have historically voted in the Hugos: 40-ish percent near the high water mark. Thousands of votes that don’t get cast are sitting there, ripe for the motivating/wheedling/convincing/mobilizing.

Wow, F/SF sure has problems. Well, yes, but other places do, too. For one glaring example, women are consistently and grievously under-published and under-reviewed by some major organs of mainstream English-language literary culture. And on a scale that makes the situation in F/SF look pretty chipper by comparison. At least genre fiction talks about its problems.

What do you think about all this? As every year, I’ve read little of what’s on the slate, and I can’t comment on the literary quality of it. I’m not a fan of the Puppies’ general approach, because I think it constituted a perversion of the process that has resulted in a problematic ballot, with multiple instances of the same publishing house or same person dominating a category. This isn’t the first time this has happened in the world of awards, and it’s always a problem, whoever/whatever is dominating. That includes when it’s your publisher, or your favorite author, doing the dominating. In those situations, the field’s usually weak, something’s screwy in the process, or someone/something is so disproportionately influential that they will always tip the scales.

The ballot is complicated, and people have strong feelings about it, with some nominees withdrawing, and others sticking to their guns for various reasons. Being nominated for a Hugo should, in any case, be a joyful moment, and I have nothing but sympathy for the folks for whom this affair has been deeply upsetting. All that said, awards systems are fallible, and people always unfairly get overlooked. I’m really glad for the recent trend toward increasing diversity of nominees over the past few years, and I hope it continues after what I hope will be seen as the unfortunate and exceptional debacle of 2015. Even if every single person on the ballot this year deserved to be there, the tactics by which many of them got there sucks, and so does the resulting hue and cry.

There are, however, a number of nominees on the ballot this year who unquestionably deserve to be there… and might not have made it without the Puppies. Voters in the past didn’t agree, and de gustibus non est disputandum, but F/SF hasn’t always seen fit to acknowledge critically the work of some tremendously popular authors of beloved books, whose commercial success has helped keep the genre afloat. Some people have mentioned the regular absence of commercially successful authors from the ballots, and I think this is perhaps the only unalloyed good to have come out of all of this, which I hope might persist in years to come.

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with a commercially successful author of fantasy fiction (not on the post linked above) who said with an impressive amount of good cheer that she was never going to be nominated for the Hugo because she didn’t write that kind of fiction, and the Hugo crowd was never going to give her the nod. Thus far, she’s right, she’s not alone, and both are problems. Beloved authors who fire hearts and minds should have a shot at the ballot. Likewise, authors of all backgrounds—every race, gender, creed, religion, culture, etc.—should have a shot at the ballot. It’s my hope that the end result of all of this drama is an increased number of people voting their passion, acknowledging the best of the full diversity of people and styles in F/SF, and finding a more graceful way to handle generational change.